Saturday, June 12, 2010

Three Starter Exercises for Writing a Dramatic Memoir

I was texting with Susan earlier (as is the custom of people like her in her twenties.   Me?  I'd rather pick up a phone.  But times change...), discussing how she might get started on her book project -- her journey through addiction and recovery as a college student.  The more we bounced ideas back and forth, the more I wondered if there were some ideas that might be helpful for other writers too.
      Dramatic memoirs cover all kinds of territory:  body image, sexuality, abuse, addiction, relationships.  Maybe you experienced a big life event -- a house burning down, an extraordinary animal touching your life, a major life accomplishment at an unusual age. . . if you wish to process an experience or accomplishment in a really thorough, satisfying, and "witnessed" way, memoir is an amazing way to do it.
      Whatever your desired terrain, if you feel you have a story to tell, there's a gift for you in the telling (as well as for the reader in the reading!).  If you've been putting off writing your memoir, maybe these kick-off exercises can help you start moving forward and creating momentum.
     Here are three things to get you rolling on the story that you (and only you) are meant to tell.

Three Exercises for Starting Your Dramatic Memoir 

1.  DEFINE your audience, DEFINE your message. 
Definition Exercise:  Start by writing a letter to your ideal reader -- speak to them casually and honestly, and tell them three things:  why you're writing this story or instruction, what they can expect to get out of it, and what kind of things you're going to cover.

Definition Exercise -- alternate option:  If you're having trouble figuring out who your reader is, write this letter to a younger version of yourself.  Tell yourself the things you wished you would have known back in the day.  Tell it as if you only want to save yourself hassles and unwieldy lessons you'd rather not have had to learn personally.  [From an energetic point of view, you're actually (somehow) helping your younger self in a real way by doing it from this perspective.  It might sound a little 'out there', but the shamans have been working with the idea of parallel selves for centuries.]

2.  Use CONTRAST for drama, validation, and suspense.
Contrast Exercise:  First, write a page about a time when you were in deep trouble with your topic.  Write about when things were a MESS -- when your assumptions were leading you down terrible paths, you were broke, you were unsuccessful, you were ready to tear your hair out -- any time when things were hugely challengin.  Be crazy honest with the details and crappiness of the whole situation.  Readers respond to authenticity, and they'll sense sugar-coating in a second.  
     After you've done this, write a page about a moment when your natural state or your enhanced knowledge, success, skills, confidence -- whatever -- had you in a place free of chaos and full of contentment.
     Then look at ways you might play these contrasting versions of yourself against each other.  Maybe you could structure your project so that it starts out with a scene of you in complete embarrassment or distress, then flashback to a time when everything was smooth;  the bulk of your story might be how one situation morphed into the other.  Or perhaps, you'll start out with a description of the near-ideal life you're leading now, and work backwards to show how it wasn't always this way.

3.  Get comfortable with showing your VULNERABILITIES. 
One worry many of us writers have is that we need to have all the answers.  We need to not only be able to write about life (we imagine), but to also instruct on it.  You don't need to be perfect.  You don't need to have all the answers, or know all the hows around what happened, or even to do extensive research on the why's.
     Just tell your story.  Be honest.  The truth disarms and enthralls the reader.  And the truth is enough.  Any more or any less is too much and too little.  Include details.  You'll think they won't mean anything to anyone else, but you're mistaken.  They mean everything -- they're the way that a reader will shockingly note that "oh my God, this is ME I'm reading about."
     Release the idea that your parents, friends, or anyone else will read this and judge you.  They're either already judging you, or they don't give a damn, or they love you and will appreciate your journey more for knowing you better.  They probably know (or suspect) more about your past than you think, anyway.  Set the record straight.  Let it be a morality tale, if there are some really sordid parts.  Give your parents a "censored version" with some pages ripped out, if you're really that concerned about their responses.
      Vulnerability Exercise:  Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper.  On one side, list things that make you feel good about yourself.  On the other side, list things that make you feel bad/ vulnerable/ embarrassed/ ashamed about yourself.  When your lists are complete, show where your self-esteem and difficult life experiences are connected by drawing lines that show where elements from the "vulnerability side" lead to elements on the "feel good" side.
      Most lingering vulnerabilities have a resonance in our present life that can be positive;  if we feel resolutely crappy about something, perhaps we haven't invested the time in acknowledging its lesson or gift.  (i.e. Maybe your stuttering as a child led to your being an excellent listener as an adult.  Maybe your money screw ups as a twenty-something led to a wisdom and consciousness with money that serves you now.)
      If you have trouble finding the connection, play with the idea that you are a character in the story of your life.  Ask yourself why you might put a specific obstacle / flaw / villain into the life of your character.  What could they learn or gain from it?  How could they grow from it's presence?  See if this offers any insights into the 'story' you hold as your own.


Most importantly, just START.  Start jotting down snippets of things you want to include in a memoir -- parts of conversations, images, details -- anything that would create a fuller view of your life in the moments you choose to share.  Throw them in a box if you can't get to them now, or start a doc on your computer with an innocuous name if you're worried about snoopers.  Start an anonymous blog to really organize your thoughts in an archival way.

If you have a story to tell, start deciding how you're going to tell it.  The world is waiting.


Five Things I'm Thankful For Today:
1.  The nice rain all afternoon.
2.  Daisy's cool drawings (suddenly representational!) of animals today.
3.  The midday bubble bath.
4.  Our impromptu pizza gathering at Daly on Thursday.
5.  The adventure of considering ourselves in different homes and what each one means, feels like.


  1. I stumbled upon your blog and this was exactly the advice I was needing today.

    Happy New Year,

  2. Thanks, Laura!

    I did a piece for Huffington Post that might be useful for you too -- please feel free to check it out at:

    And a Happy New Year to you too!
    Thanks for writing!